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Transit Agencies Ride Social Media
Transit Agencies Ride Social Media

Given the cult of personality surrounding so many celebrities and politicians and the demand for content precipitated by the 24-hour news cycle, it’s not surprising when famous or noteworthy personalities grab national headlines with a tweet or Facebook post. But when notable news outlets including National Public Radio, The New York Times, and CNN report on tweets posted by a regional transit agency, you might wonder what all the commotion is about.

The tweets in question are from the Twitter account of BART, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit agency. The person responsible for the media kerfuffle and behind the twitter handle @SFBART is Taylor Huckaby, a twenty-seven-year-old spokesperson for the transit organization. Huckaby’s tweets made national news for their candor and the unusual way they responded so frankly to criticism of the public agency. “It seemed like a peek behind the institutional curtain,” wrote Jonah Bromwich of The New York Times.

The emergence of social media has provided new avenues of marketing and communication for public agencies and unparalleled access to the consumers of the goods and services they provide. Seventy-four percent of adults with access to the internet use social media according to the Pew Research Center. For transit agencies, that means millions of costumers are just a click, “Like,” or “Follow” away.

At Portland State University, Dr. Jenny Liu, assistant professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning and an environmental and resource economist, is interested in the ways transportation agencies use social media, what platforms they’re on, and how they measure the effectiveness, efficiency and value of their efforts to communicate with the online masses.

“I work at the intersection of public policy and economics,” Dr. Liu said, “where transportation, planning, and sustainability meet. In that space, I investigate the potential economic effects of transportation-related issues.”

Recognizing that social media use by transit agencies was “trending” and that there was scant research examining the practice, Dr. Liu, along with urban studies graduate student Wei Shi, and collaborators from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, approached PSU’s Transportation Research and Education Center and poposed taking a look to see what they could learn from transit agencies around the country.

“Transportation agencies are increasingly using a number of social media platforms to communicate with their riders,” Dr. Liu said. “But what’s missing from the data are the insights into what platforms agencies are using, what purposes they’re using them for; whether or not they had a plan or strategy in place to achieve marketing and communications goals, or even if they had goals prior to engaging riders. There was nothing in the literature that suggested the kind of resources these agencies are investing in social media outreach. Nothing that indicated whether and how they measure the effectiveness of their efforts, and what they felt they needed to improve their social media programs. Our project aim was to fill in those blanks.”

The research team surveyed twenty-seven transportation agencies from metropolitan regions and cities large and small throughout the U.S. They collected data on ridership, service area, operations, social media usage and related factors. Their analysis of the data showed both surprising and unsurprising correlations between social media use and the regions and populations served by transportation agencies.

Among the twenty-seven agencies Dr. Liu collected data from, a large majority have social media strategies in place, methods to measure effectiveness and target audiences. A smaller percentage, though still a plurality of agencies, approached social media programs with clearly defined goals and measurable objectives. Perhaps not surprising, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are the platforms agencies use most.

In terms of investments of human resources into social media programs, the research team found that less than half of the agencies surveyed dedicated full-time positions to their efforts. Most agencies divided the responsibility among several employees.

So what do transit agencies do on social media? It seems they spend most of their time responding to riders’ comments and updating friends and followers on transit system changes. Some agencies dabble in communicating the environmental benefits of riding public transportation and make the case for the ways transit improves quality of life. As you might expect, agencies evaluate the effectiveness of their social media programs in the same way many of us do: by tallying “Friends” and “Followers,” tracking “retweets,” “shares,” and views, and by monitoring the volume of positive and negative posts, tweets, and comments they get.

While the research team found that the size of a city doesn’t necessarily relate to whether and to what degree its transit agency participates in social media, the age of the populations does. No surprise here, agencies in cities with younger populations engage more with social media than those where the population is older.

“I think one of the biggest takeaways we gleaned from the study was that transportation agencies really want a set of standardized social media practices and methods of measuring their effectiveness,” Dr. Liu said. “We saw a clear need for a playbook of best practices to guide social media programs. And to a lesser degree we found that agencies are interested in comparing notes with colleagues in other cities. At this point, however, the lack of standardized procedures and policies make it really difficult to compare what agencies are doing and how effective their efforts are from one place to the next.”

The recent hoopla in the news over the unusual @SFBART tweets highlights the fact that new media enables government agencies to communicate with the public through outlets still considered untraditional by many organizational standards. And in this burgeoning era of online communication, there are no formal rules or established decorum to dictate how the discourse should proceed. Nevertheless, Dr. Liu’s research points out that various transit agencies are taking similar approaches to communicating with the public through social media and evaluating the effectiveness of their efforts. Though just an initial step, Dr. Liu thinks the research can help transportation agencies identify common themes, practices, and measures of success that will improve the way they use social media to reach their customers. The next step in the process, Dr. Liu explained, is to conduct similar surveys with universities and hospitals to see if there are any similarities to uncover in their approaches to social media strategy and evaluation. In the long run, she noted, the goal is to contribute to our understanding of the economic value social media adds to the operations of organizations whose mission it is to serve the public.